One of the Best Restaurants in the World Puts People First

Brian Canlis, Canlis

November 26, 2019

My grandfather, who founded Canlis, the 70-year-old fine-dining restaurant my brother and I now lead in Seattle, was known to wear a cape. And a lot of jewelry. He was an egomaniac who ran the restaurant much in the model of celebrity chefs that pop-culture has elevated today. He was a rabid perfectionist. He would have made for great reality television, our grandfather. Eccentricities and ego aside, his drive and innovations in fine dining built a restaurant that came to be recognized as one of the best in the world. 

My parents, who took over the company in 1977, ran it with a different set of values. They cared less about ego and perfection and instead prioritized hospitality and family, community and philanthropy. They wanted everyone to feel welcome. Their approach guided the restaurant for 30 years, building on the reputation my grandfather established, garnering awards, and maintaining the restaurant’s place among the finest restaurants in the world.

It’s that restaurant that my brother, Mark, and I grew up in. It was a fine-dining, gorgeous restaurant that was all about people.

When my brother and I stepped in to lead Canlis in 2007, we did so against the backdrop of a rapid evolution in fine dining. Propelled by the advent and popularity of food television, chefs had become celebrities, and food and restaurant culture had become a pop culture phenomenon. Central to that culture was the image of the shouting, screaming, egotistical chef that my grandfather epitomized. The drama made for must-watch television, and the story that began to be told about fine dining kitchens was that they were toxic places of abuse, unfairness, and neglect. And the reality was, some great kitchens were run in this way. And often it was those great kitchens that got a lot of attention.

This was the landscape Mark and I entered as third-generation stewards of the family business. We knew that we needed to evolve the restaurant to compete in this new era of increasingly educated diners and elevated food culture, or we wouldn't survive. We had a decision to make: were we going to follow the model of other world-class restaurants that generally put product before culture, often fueling this negative, destructive culture that was being glorified? Or, were we going to try to be something else?

We had the benefit of the two models that came before us: our grandfather’s and our parents’. When we put our heads together, the question we asked was: "What if we could do both?" We didn't have a model for that among the world's great restaurants. We had not met a restaurant that shared our vision: to become one of the best restaurants in the world not in spite of caring for people but because we cared for people. We set out to forge the path.

Twelve years later, as we enter our seventieth year, we’re a happy anomaly. We are a thriving third-generation business, a restaurant that has defied the odds in longevity, and we believe the reason is our decision to take the best of both generations and create a new model for restaurant culture.

Our mission: To inspire all people to turn toward one another. That's an unusual mission statement for a fine dining restaurant. But we have lofty goals.

We want to help guide the industry, and in turn businesses across the country, to realize that caring about people is not a weakness. In fact, we believe that caring about people is a competitive advantage. That's the strategy we feel will allow us to become the best restaurant in America. And that's exciting for us because if we become the best, people will care about what we have to say. People will look to our model as they build their own businesses.

We have built several significant pillars to support our model, allowing us to bring together a value-aligned team, educate and empower that team to support our goal of being the best restaurant, and, ultimately, help transform restaurant culture. 

Building a Value-Aligned Team 

We ask people one question in our interview: “How will working at Canlis help you become who you want to become? Not what you want to become, but who.” The question surprises people. They're ready for us to grill them on their experience and their knowledge. But we believe the only person who really knows if this is the right job and if they will be the right fit for Canlis, is the person themselves. After the initial interview, we ask them to come work a shift at the restaurant, and they see how hard it is. After their shift, we sit down with them, and we say, "Now you know who we are. You've seen how it works. Are you the right person for the job?” We ask them to go home and talk to their partner or their kids or their parents, to consider if this job fits their vision for their life and to make a good decision. After that, only about 25 percent of applicants come back and say, “I want this job.”

The result: we build a phenomenal team of people with an aligned mission, direction, and purpose who really care about what we're doing. They understand the intensity of the work, and they still choose it and us.

Investing and Educating 

We have 120 employees right now, and our hope is that every one of them leaves Canlis with a degree in running a business differently. All of our middle managers go through a year-long program we call Canlis University, designed to essentially offer a graduate degree in Canlis' management style. We teach them how to read a P&L, how to write a business plan, and how to create a mission statement—all tools they can use with us and in a future job.

Why invest in educating current employees for their next job? We know our employees are not going to stay here forever. We want to prepare them for the rest of their career. We know that if we do this, two things happen: first, when employees understand our investment in them today, they are inspired to give so much more; second, if and when they move on, they will bring our People First approach to the next restaurant they step into and help transform restaurant industry culture. It’s win-win.

Celebrating the Exit

When we hire an employee, we say, "We want to be a part of your exit.” People are often shocked by this. In the restaurant industry, there's a culture of betrayal if you leave and go work somewhere else, and there are a lot of burnt bridges as result. We think that’s unnecessary.

If Canlis is no longer the place that's helping a person become who he or she wants to be (again, who, not what), that person is no longer the right fit for our team. When that happens, we want to work together to find the perfect place for that person to land. We have an incredible network of connections in the industry, and we want to help deliver the employee to the next best place. We love the process of serving people in this way. And, when that person finds the next place, we throw a party to celebrate. We treat it like graduation day, and we hope he or she will carry the culture and lessons of their time with us forward.

What we’ve discovered as we’ve embraced this approach is that when we're investing in how people leave our restaurant they actually stay longer and they're more committed when they’re here. In addition, we’ve created an incredible alumni network of people who love our culture and believe in what we do. We are building bridges rather than burning them, and we are sharing that positive culture with the wider restaurant world.

The Big Picture

I sincerely believe that choosing to run Canlis the way we have, by putting People First, promotes longevity, provides a competitive advantage, and makes it a hell of a lot more fun to go to work in the morning.

On a larger scale, we believe the work we are doing in our own business can help improve our industry. There is a lot that’s broken in restaurant culture today. Food industry employees suffer from some of the highest rates of addiction, depression, and suicide. The irony is that we're supposed to be an industry that fills people up. The word restaurant comes from the Latin word for restoration. People come to our restaurants to be restored. And yet, we ourselves are the ones in most need of restoring as an industry. There's a sadness in that, and we want to help change that reality.

Ultimately, the magic of the dining room table is that it brings people together. It puts us across from one another, and it forces us to be eye-to-eye. There’s magic in breaking bread and drinking wine together and in what can happen relationally at a table. We all know how special that moment can be. We are grateful to play in some small part in turning people toward one another—at the table and in our business.

Brian Canlis is President and co-owner of Canlis.

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